County with no coronavirus cases (and plenty of doubt)

Menton, Texas – Zoom on the glowing red map of the ever-growing coronavirus cases in the continental United States and you’ll find a county that has been spared. Only one, from coast to coast.

Like a lonely house standing after a tornado, a city has been leveled, Loving County in the shameless Doon Plains of oil-rich West Texas, yet to register a single positive case of coronovirus.

This is something the people of the county are proud of. They talk about it. They live by it.

“You can turn it off!” Chuck Flush told a visitor in a face mask at the window of his food truck as a pair of oil field workers barefoot. “We don’t have viruses here.”

If only it were true.

Although never included in the county’s official reports, at least one positive test for coronovirus was recorded over the summer at a local health clinic in Mentone, the county’s only city, according to a clinic worker.

In this part of Texas everyone lived at the home of the man who, when sick, called “man camp” – near the city center – a temporary residence for transient oil and gas field workers. But since he was not a permanent resident, and the house was quickly closed, Loving County never reported the case. Its record remained intact.

Ten months after the first infection was recorded in the United States, coronavirus has established its place in every corner of the country. More than 11 million people have tested positive for the virus that causes Kovid-19, with more than 164,000 new cases reported on Monday alone.

Now rural areas, which survived the epidemic, have become serious centers of new infections. In recent months, a low number of small, remote counties, including Loving County, ranked only in the continental United States with no positive cases.

One by one, each has started recording transitions. The last time apart from Loving County was officially Esmeralda County in Nevada, which filed its first case last week. (Kalawao County in Hawaii, which has fewer people than Loving County, has also not reported any known cases.)

Those who live in the county full-time – the US mainland’s smallest population, no more than 169 people drawn with 669 square miles of sand, mesquite, and cervicalwood – attribute their relative antiviral success to the landscape and sparse population. . He joked that they were socially distant before he calmed down.

“It is a desert town. County attorney Steve Simonsen said what it is. “We do not talk in terms of how many cows per acre, how many cows per section. One section is 640 acres. “

But despite the wide-open space, the county is busy. The county has 10 times the number of census workers as residents. Truck hauling equipment for oil fields or large boxes of sand to whine through the city in a continuous, noisy stream. Plastic garbage and blown truck tire pieces on the side of the road.

When one drives through the county at night, lights from oil and gas operations shine across the landscape, creating the mirage of a distant city that may never reach. “You do that up the hill and it looks like you’re driving in Dallas or Fort Worth,” Mr. Simonsen said.

The men – and it is mostly men who work in Loving County – shuffle in and out of the only shop for miles, a relatively new convenience store where the line for beer and single-meals rear refrigerators during 5pm Can extend up to

“Toilet’s Coming Soon,” hangs outside an all-cap banner. On a recent weekday evening, a shopkeeper wore a cowboy hat. More forged trucks were on the cap. None were in masks. Neither were clerks. The county is exempted from a statewide mandate.

But even though the virus is not front of mind in Loving County, it has changed lives here.

The epidemic led to a drop in oil prices, reducing the number of workers in the city. The man camps were less full. Hotel rooms, which were $ 350 a night in Picos a few months ago, were moving to the nearest big city, now at a third the price.

“With the epidemic, a lot of stuff went off,” Ricardo Gallon, 38, who works for a supply company, said he had dropped from 50 employees to 12.

Mr. Gellan, from Eagle Pass near the Texas border with Mexico, said he typically spent about 12 days working and then got four days off. He considered himself lucky to live only five hours away from his family. Some activists come from far ahead, such as Utah or Louisiana.

While living in Loving County, Mr. Gellan lived in a man’s camp on his company property, sharing a small living space with another worker. He said that the workers there practice social concern. “At our yard, no one got the disease from Kovid,” he said.

But, he said, no one was being tested until he had symptoms. “They don’t just test you to test you,” Mr. Galen said. For that, workers must travel to big cities like Odessa or Midland.

According to Anthony Look, 28, a private health clinic, offers and performs approximately 20 coronovirus tests per week. Mr. Luke, like most workers in the county, lives in a trailer – attached to his clinic – and stays at home in Lubbock for a two-week stint between rest periods.

During his time there, he said, the clinic has had two positive tests for coronovirus: in August, Man Camp was incorporated near the center of Menton, and another was taken at a job site outside Loving County.

The August case raised an alarm in the county’s courtyard as clerks and other county employees often camp for free meals on weekdays.

“We’re very known when something like this happens,” said Angela Medlin, 31, a deputy county clerk who moved to Menton last year with her husband and four children. “I know at least one man who was ill, but they took him back to where he is from,” he said, recalling the situation over the summer.

In the city, residents draw a bright line between themselves and incoming workers. People who live in the county the whole time treat each other like members of the extended family bubble.

In the courtyard, a square brick building since 1935, the doors are now closed to outsiders and county employees do not wear masks. When a person comes to travel, such as a landman looking at new oil or gas leases, the person must wear an appointment and mask.

A Halloween party for children in the city attracted about 60 people and included a temperature check at the door. People felt comfortable not wearing masks.

But Mentone holds a few gatherings where the history of the county’s oil boom and bust can be read in hollow rusty storage tanks, empty corrugated houses and broken plaster of the only schoolhouse that has been unused for decades.

“When we arrived here, I said, ‘Punk, how long have we been going to stay in this godforsaken place?” Missed 89-year-old Mary Belle Jones, who moved to Loving County in 1953 with her husband Elgin Jones.

There were rattlesnakes in the yard of his first house, he remembered, and a toilet outside. They had five children, moved into a large house, accumulated over an acre of land and never left.

Mr. Jones, who is known to everyone by his childhood nickname, moved from the oil fields for nearly three decades. “She said she was known as the only sheriff in Texas that you could call punk and ran with it,” Mrs. Jones said.

His children moved to the local school until the sixth grade. But it was a shortage of students, and then shut down. The children now ride a bus to the next county east at 6 am.

Many members of the Jones family resided in Loving County. A son, Skeet Jones, is a top county executive. His sister is the county clerk. The county attorney, Mr. Simonsen, married into the family.

“She was spending more time than she was at home, so we decided to take this step,” said Mr. Simonsen, a lawyer who last lived in Houston, his wife. “I knew there was no lawyer here in the city, so.”

For Leroy Medlin, 33, moving to Loving County was a dream come true. Not so for Angela, his wife, who had to be convinced.

“He was just throwing a fit at the thought of it,” he said, sitting on his porch on the far edge of town with a wicker recliner, a cowboy hat on a table by his side.

Mr. Medlin, who was fired from his job as a San Antonio police detective to justify a car chase and later lost his job as a deputy sheriff in the city, shepherd on the Jones family farm works as.

“I like to go back in time. So I’m out of here.

Some residents said they were aware of coronavirus cases in the county, but because they were limited to incoming workers, the county still considers itself virus-free – if on a technicality.

According to Mr. Look, oil and gas field workers are involved in most of the tests conducted in the county at the local clinic. Health Department spokesman Lara Anton said that will be lodged in staff residences in Loving County.

Were any permanent residents infected? Officially, it is still not one.

But Loving County residents admitted that their true record is probably no longer accurate.

“To say that we are the only place in the United States where there was never a Kovid case, I don’t think that’s true,” Mr. Simmons said. “It’s a little bit of publicity, but of course it’s here.”

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